The converted milk truck rumbled through the streets of Missoula, radio blasting “One Way or Another” by Blondie. Behind the driver, two teenage girls were buckled into school bus seats bolted onto the floor.
One of the girls, who evidently didn’t have much experience in skirt-wearing, had trouble controlling her skirt in the wind blowing through the truck’s open door. “Sit on it,” advised her friend, who was wearing pants that day. That did the trick.
Skirt girl was dressed up for reasons other than what you might expect from a teenager—or anyone. She was delivering fresh produce to old people, and the fact that she wanted to look her best is telling.
Behind us in the cargo area, boxes of fresh produce were stacked for transport to the Vantage Villa and Silvercrest low-income senior housing units. The truck, painted red with big Garden City Harvest logos on each side, is the Mobile Market—a production of Garden City Harvest’s “Youth Harvest” program.
Garden City Harvest, as you may know, is dedicated to putting the gardens back in the Garden City, via community gardens, agriculture education, and what I call “farm therapy,” in which Youth Harvest employs at-risk teens who have been assigned there by the courts. In doing the important work of producing and distributing food, the opportunities for personal growth and healing are spectacular.
At a stoplight, Youth Harvest staffer Laurie Strand turns around in the driver’s seat and asks, “You guys want to see a gnarly blister?”
“Yes!” Skirt and Pants reply in unison. Laurie has just enough time to display the battle scar from her weekend hike before the light turns green.
“Ewwwww gross!” the girls agree.
We pull into Vantage Villa, where a crowd has already gathered in anticipation. As Laurie and the girls—who are each on their third Mobile Market tour—set up a mini-farmers’ market in the parking lot, their extra-eager clients crowd the table.
“How much for that pepper?”
“My, my, look at that celery.”
“Got any corn on the cob?”
“Please step away from the table for a few minutes until we set up,” Skirt says, with gentle but unmistakable authority. Eventually the mob settles down and waits, passing the time by chatting among themselves.
“How you doing, Donna?” asks one.
“I haven’t died yet, that’s a godsend,” she said.
Donna, who has her own shopping cart, tells me, “Missoula Aging Services gave us these coupons to spend at the farmers’ market, but I have no way to get there. Now this market comes to us. It’s a godsend.”
Finally the table is ready and the clients line up obediently, hands clasped, full of praise for the bounty before them.
“Margie wants cucumbers and cauliflower,” Donna reminds herself. She sees me watching her and explains, “I also gotta cook for my blind lady.”
Skirt and Pants are holding court behind the table, which is laden with corn, flowers, beets, bell peppers, celery, onions, cabbage, beans, squash, leeks, carrots, garlic, hot chilies, eggplants and potatoes. Whatever the nature of these “at-risk” kids’ troubles, it’s clear they’re wearing this responsibility well, and thoroughly enjoying it.
“It’s really rewarding to see the smiles on their faces,” Pants says.
“I really like the interaction,” says Skirt. “People who are older are often craving it. Sometimes, as a young person, you can be like ‘ehhhh,’ but it’s important to put yourself out there.”
Mobile Market is a spin-off of Youth Harvest, which was created in 2002 by Tim Ballard, a practicing psychotherapist and long-time farm manager of Garden City Harvest’s flagship farm, the Rattlesnake Community Farm. A collaboration between Garden City Harvest, Missoula
Youth Drug Court and the Human Resource Council, Youth Harvest is, in Ballard’s words, “a therapeutic, service-oriented employment program.”
When Ballard heard about the People’s Grocery, a mobile grocery store that brings high-quality food into inner-city Oakland, he had the idea for a program in Missoula that would allow his “Youth Harvest Kids” to deliver the food they helped grow to local, low-income elderly people. This allows them to provide an important basic need in our community, and both generations have a lot to gain from the
“These elders are an age group that might remember the taste of a September tomato,” he says. “Some of them might even remember when Missoula truly was the Garden City.”
Back at the market, a woman named Mrs. Brookfield is dressed head to toe in bright whites and purple crocs. She wants iceberg lettuce, and won’t settle for a gorgeous head of red leaf. Holding her coupons close to her chest, she’s content to absorb the ambience from the umbrella table next to the stand, and pontificate.
As the empty boxes are flattened and loaded into the red milk truck, Mrs. Brookfield tells the girls how to have a successful marriage.
“Trust is the key,” she explains. “It’s not just about love and all that. Trust is so important, and it’s so cheap.”